Customer Experience Ride-sharing Grab

Has Grab's digital monopoly caused customer experience issues?


By Shawn Lim, Reporter, Asia Pacific

October 23, 2018 | 12 min read

The departure of American ride-sharing giant Uber from the South East Asian market after a buyout from Grab at the start of 2018 saw the latter achieving heroic status overnight because the move was seen as ‘a local David that conquered the global Goliath’. Has this dominance played into its user experience? Or are customers just more demanding now?

The sudden ascension from underdog to dominant player post-merger saw Grab as one of the only choices for customers in some markets. Speaking at a conference in May about the merger, Cheryl Goh, vice president of marketing at Grab, asserted it is ‘fair’ for the public to scrutinize the company even more now because it has become a bigger company.

Taking Goh at her word, market research company Forrester spent more than three months scrutinizing the company and released a report this month called ‘A Cautionary Tale: Why Digital Monopolies Need Strong Customer Experiences Too’, which found that less than a year after it monopolized the market, weak customer experiences (CX) is threatening Grab’s dominance in Singapore.

According to the report, Grab did not waste any time capitalizing on its monopoly by increasing its prices post-merger, changing its promotions structure and revamping its GrabRewards program overnight.

Grab’s drivers were also unhappy, with many noticing changes to incentives after the merger, unfair penalties, and flaws in the Grab app. Both drivers and customers expressed irritation with the app, with many expressing frustrations and dissatisfaction with the app’s location-based services.

In addition, customers complained that even though the app told them a car was many minutes away, an update a few seconds later informed them that the car had arrived. Drivers, meanwhile, said that the app inaccurately estimated routing to the nearest job, resulting in frequent cancellations and affecting their ability to earn an acceptable wage.

All this unhappiness confirmed initial fears by the Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore that the merger of Uber and Grab infringed on Singapore’s Competition Act and would lead to a “substantial lessening of competition” in ride-hailing services.

A look at social media supports some of the findings, with multiple users on Facebook complaining about Grab's prices and rewards system.


The Drum reached out to Grab for its comments on the report and Lim Kell Jay, head of Grab Singapore, said, "We acknowledge there’s a lot more we can do and we are making every effort to improve our services and customer experience. We will work harder to rebuild our relationship with users in Southeast Asia."

CX expert Shahid Nizami, managing director for Asia Pacific at HubSpot tells The Drum that while they believe Grab is currently in an advantageous position in Singapore, with around an 80% market share, prioritizing short-term growth at the expense of customer happiness is a surefire way to ensure it will be pouring money into the business, just to stay in maintenance mode. That will leave the company very vulnerable when the competition comes to town.

“Now more than ever, customers are more independent, more impatient, and less trusting of businesses,” Shahid says. “They have the means to share their dissatisfaction widely and loudly, whether that’s on social media or online reviews, and their opinions directly influence other consumers’ decision to choose your product or service over another option. When that starts to happen, it’s a big problem.”

“In a survey by HubSpot Research, 80% of respondents said they’d stopped doing business with a company because of a poor customer experience. If your customers are dissatisfied, they can, and will switch to another provider.”

Regardless of the reality, the perception of how a brand is behaving is what defines how the consumer experiences it, asserts Stephane Sanchez, regional head of customer experience, Kantar TNS.

“Brands, especially those who are in rapidly evolving ecosystems, need to remain as close to consumers as possible to pick up on these changes as soon as possible so that they can tailor their strategy accordingly,” Sanchez tells The Drum.

“This may include robust recovery processes so that complains can be made quickly, but should also include more passive forms of tracking – for example, measuring sentiment on social channels, identifying the negative sentiments that are not being made directly to the brand and then establishing what is causing them is crucial.”

What is wrong with Grab's CX?

It must be said that it is not all gloom and doom for Grab at the moment, as its quick pickup times is one of the reasons customers often give when asked why they use the app. In addition, customers have also said as they want to be driven between point A and point B without waiting for taxis in the rain, Grab does a good job of solving that problem in a convenient way.

While Shahid acknowledges that it is hard to pinpoint the exact reasons, without taking an in-depth look behind the scenes of the business, or gathering data from their drivers and customers, he points out if the CX that Grab provides in-app is full of friction, it starts to outweigh the reason people use the service in the first place, which is convenience.

In addition, Sanchez notes that CX is often one of the main areas that suffer as the business goes from start-up to MNC, as companies struggle to upscale the business model and the talent needed to deliver it. If the transition doesn’t happen fast enough, she says the consumers will notice and equity will suffer.

“Grab’s CX strategy is strong. It is the dominant player in many of its markets and has successfully expanded its offer beyond ride-hailing to incorporate payments and food delivery,” he explains.

“However its success will be based on maintaining the equity of the main brand, how fast it can adapt to stay in line with consumer demands, and the extent to which it can stay ahead of the competition, especially as the landscape changes with new offers such as soon-to-be-launched ‘single-mobility’ app Whim.”

What can Grab do to improve its CX?

All companies make mistakes, but it is how they deal with them that set them apart, says Shahid, sharing a survey by HubSpot Research, which asked: “if a company you regularly buy from made a mistake, but apologized and made it right, would you continue to buy from them?”

96% of people surprisingly said yes, he notes, which goes to show that when a company gets it wrong, customers can be extremely forgiving if the company is prepared to own their screw-ups, say sorry (mean it), and resolve the situation.

“I’m sure Grab does seek feedback from its customers and drivers, but a fast turn around can go a long way in building trust with customers and partners. Too many companies gather feedback and do nothing with it,” he says. “Nobody knows your customer experience better than your customers, so ask them how you can improve, and actually do something about it.”

It is also important to make sure a human touch is built into the experience, Sanchez adds because the Grab’s service is so heavily dependent on its app to create an ecosystem that makes life easier for customers.

“One route is through the personalization of content or offers, however, it’s also important to ensure employees throughout the business have a strong understanding of the brand promise so that a consistent and recognizable experience is delivered at every touch point – from the drivers to the in-app messages to the customer support staff,” he says.

How are other companies similar to Grab faring with CX?

One company that is a fully digital business like Grab, albeit in a different industry, is digital telco Circles.Life, whose head of customer happiness John Epok, tells The Drum that the company build its product by putting its users and potential users in the centre of everything that it does, thus its mission of “Giving Power Back To Customer’ lives among everyone in the company.

Epok explains that giving power back to the customer means providing a good service and developing a product that will solve their daily problems. At Circles.Life, this is being done through a seamless digital experience on our app and website with excellent customer service.

“Circles.Life’s premium customer experience comprises of seamless digital experience, simple and straightforward customer journey on our app and website. Our user experience and testing teams work endlessly to ensure this,” says Epok.

“Honest products with no hidden fees or hidden information, give power back to the customers, products that give customers the power to control their needs and solve their daily problems and excellent customer service, which at Circles.Life, we call Customer Happiness Expert.”

In regards to handling its customers’ unhappiness and finding a common ground, Epok shares that while all levels are trained to handle user enquiries, Circles.Life has a highly specialized dedicated team handling customer dissatisfactions.

The level of support is very personalized in the sense that the company reaches out to them by calling. By doing that, Epok says the company get its customers even more engaged, which is beneficial for Circles.Life to better understand their pain points through their feedback and is later translated into action items.

For example, the company had a user signed up recently and received his welcome pack. He then travelled to Switzerland and found an issue with his SIM card, which meant that he could not use Circles.Life roaming service at all, leaving him very unhappy.

“With no hesitation, our happiness and operations team immediately sent over a new SIM all the way to Switzerland through priority shipping. That’s literally going the extra hundred miles to help this user,” says Epok. “We were extremely happy after he had received his SIM and had confirmed that everything’s working fine now.”

When it comes to ensuring that its CirclesCare app has good user experience and constantly improves, Siddarth Chaturvedi, product manager at Circles.Life explains the company does not just put features on its app, but create entire customer journey for each of every feature, right from discovery, number of steps or clicks, to the exact communication of what is happening with the user.

It is not just the design and product teams involve with this process, as even Circles.Life developers are involved in customer research and FGDs, especially when a new feature is launched. The company’s entire development team also attends offline roadshows so that they can get direct feedback from the customers and have insightful discussions.

“We take inputs from our happiness experts (who are in direct contact with our customers every day) for everything launched in the market. The team also goes through each and every comment received on app store and play store pages to identify areas of improvements,” says Chaturvedi.

“We look at data to optimize for the most common use cases while tracking engagement metrics like Daily/Weekly active users and Average Time spent on the app to get a sense of the performance of the app.”

When handing out rewards, Circles.Life ensures that message sent out is consistent by keeping things simple. That means no convoluted steps for getting rewards, easy redemption, no special (or hidden) terms and condition. The telco wants the surprise element to be delight rather than the confusion/heartburn.

"We spend time in aligning our communication channels with happiness expert team so that everyone talks the same language," explains Chaturvedi. "Our reward system is really transparent - everything is communicated upfront. "Lastly, we ensure that the rewards we plan are what they really need and at the time when they need it, such as birthday rewards and loyalty rewards."

As companies hunt for leverage in their go-to-market strategy, which usually involves pouring money into marketing or sales efforts, CX has traditionally been viewed as a cost centre, not a profit centre.

Grab has dreams to become more than a ride-hailing company, but to do that, it needs to move from being a ‘best product’ company to becoming a ‘best in service’ company by establishing a scalable system to deliver exceptional customer experiences, delight the modern customer, and earn their promoters.

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